Over the past few days—as Trump openly asked foreign leaders to investigate his opponents, and the fact pattern around his conduct continued to sprawl—Republican talking points in Trump’s defense got ever more creative, and contradictory. Several GOP officials—including at least two United States senators—told reporters that Trump wasn’t being serious when he asked China to look into the Bidens, but was simply trolling the media. (It’s just the president being the president!) Visiting Greece, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, called Trump’s requests to foreign leaders “totally appropriate… Nations work together,” he said. “They say ‘Boy, goodness gracious if you can help me with X, we’ll help you achieve Y.’ This is what partnerships do. It’s win-win.” (If this sounds to you like a quid pro quo, you wouldn’t be alone.) Meanwhile, Alayna Treene and Jonathan Swan, of Axios, scooped that Trump—the origin of much of this whiplash messaging—told House Republicans Friday that he’d only called Ukraine’s president in the first place because Rick Perry, his energy secretary, asked him to.
Yesterday morning, Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press, followed this maddening logic to its conclusion by getting mad about it. When his guest Ron Johnson, a Republican senator, tried to score a point off of the press, Todd cut in: “OK, this is not about the media.” As Johnson continued to talk over him, Todd snapped. “Senator Johnson. SENATOR JOHNSON, PLEASE,” he shouted. Johnson finally yielded. “Can we please answer the question that I asked you, instead of trying to make Donald Trump feel better here,” Todd said. The bickering soon recommenced. “I’m sorry you chose to come on this way, senator,” Todd said as he wrapped up the interview. Johnson was still railing as Todd cut him off. (Online, Todd won plaudits for his uncompromising questioning, though some of his critics noted that his newfound aggression with misleading interviewees should be a baseline performance, not an exception.)
It wasn’t just Todd: over the weekend, and particularly on the Sunday shows, the spotlight seemed to shift, at least for a moment, to focus on the apologism of Trump’s enablers. On ABC, George Stephanopoulos didn’t get as angry as Todd, but was still visibly frustrated by his interview with Jim Jordan, a hardline GOP Congressman: “You’re telling us not to believe what we’ve seen with our own eyes, right there!” Stephanopoulos said of Jordan’s obfuscation on Trump’s China remark; wrapping up, he added, with an air of disgust, “We’ve been going 10 minutes, you still can’t say whether you think it’s right or wrong.” Over on Fox, Chris Wallace held Rep. Chris Stewart’s feet to the fire when Stewart said a reported second whistleblower complaint against Trump is meaningless. On CNN, Jake Tapper offered some historical context—always welcome in these frenzied times—on Republican shamelessness; Tapper pointed not to Watergate, but to the McCarthy hearings, noting that history has been brutal in its judgment of the GOP lawmakers who had McCarthy’s back. Away from TV, articles in multiple publications noted the flailing nature of Republicans’ defenses of Trump. Antonia Ferrier, Mitch McConnell’s former comms chief, told the New York Times that “It’s very difficult to message on quicksand”; an unnamed former Trump official told the Washington Post that “Nobody wants to be the zebra that strays from the pack and gets gobbled up by the lion.”
The refusal of most Republicans to criticize Trump is not a new story, of course; it’s been a defining theme of his presidency. Part of the reason it came into sharper focus yesterday was that the White House itself refused to put up a representative for any of the Sunday shows. At the top of his hour, Tapper noted that officials declined his invites; in their absence, he let three questions he’d wanted to put to them hang in the air. Later, Joe Walsh, the radio host who’s challenging Trump for the GOP nomination, told Tapper: “Nobody from the White House and no high-level Republicans are on this show today because there’s nothing to defend!” Walsh might have a point; even in bad weeks, the administration often lobs up a Kellyanne Conway or Stephen Miller for comment. Equally, given this White House’s regard for the press, yesterday’s refusal to show may be as much about contempt as abashedness in the face of indefensible facts.
The ever-shifting impeachment story, of course, is mostly about Trump; that being said, it’s welcome that his apologists are taking a hotter-than-usual grilling for their increasingly absurd claims. As I wrote in Friday’s newsletter, Trump’s shameless media strategy only works because his Congressional supporters choose to bolster it; they should be held accountable on their own terms, and not just as vessels for White House talking points. However vaunted their titles, we should not let senior elected officials inject their warped version of reality into the bloodstream of the mainstream press. Not without a strong challenge, at least.
Below, more on Trump, impeachment, and apologism:
- (N)ever Trump: It’s not just politicians: the Times’s Jeremy W. Peters checks in with conservative commentators who said they’d never back the president but have since become reliable supporters. According to Peters, at least half the conservatives who contributed to National Review’s “Against Trump” issue in 2016 have since made supportive comments about him.
- Hopelessly partisan: Rudy Giuliani had a quiet weekend, by his recent standards, but he did appear on Howard Kurtz’s Fox show yesterday. At one point, Giuliani brandished what he said were affidavits at the camera; in fact, they were printouts from HopelesslyPartisan.com, a right-wing website. Splinter’s Caitlin Cruz has more.
- Caller response: Late last week, Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel, co-founders of the Daily Caller, did criticize Trump in a column: the president, they wrote, should not have urged foreign leaders to investigate his rivals. Carlson and Patel do not believe, however, that Trump’s actions rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
- Been there, done that: On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with Joe Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary during the impeachment push against Bill Clinton in the 1990s. You can listen here.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR, Lyz Lenz profiles the media strategy of Alan Dershowitz, Jeffrey Epstein’s attorney who has himself been accused of sex with an underage girl at Epstein’s mansion. “I will keep talking,” Dershowitz tells Lynz, “until I die, and then my children will do it for me!” Lenz writes: “It’s a Trumpian ethos. A constant cry of victimhood from the highest echelons of power. The never ceasing voice, shouting and shouting. If you listen you’ll forget the point. If you listen and always react, it’s hard to hear anything at all.”
- The rollout for Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill begins today. In a first extract published by the New Yorker, Farrow shares details of the agents hired by Black Cube, an Israeli private-intelligence agency, to trail him in the course of his reporting on Harvey Weinstein, in 2017. Later, one of the agents, Igor Ostrovskiy, contacted Farrow to blow the whistle on the operation. “I like to be able to read the news and not think somebody’s holding a gun to a reporter’s head, deciding what he writes,” Ostrovskiy told him.
- Deadspin’s Laura Wagner, Kelsey McKinney, and David Roth have a deep dive inside TheMaven’s plan to turn Sports Illustrated into a “rickety content mill.” The magazine just laid off more than 40 employees ahead of a pivot to a contributor model; it plans to build “a network of ‘team communities’ that will drive traffic through a combination of cynical SEO ploys, news aggregation, and low-paid and unpaid labor,” Deadspin reports. Over the weekend, Twitter complained that Sports Illustrated’s copy is deteriorating already.
- Last week, a Customs and Border Protection officer at Dulles held the passport of Ben Watson, news editor of Defense One, until Watson admitted to writing propaganda; Watson informed the officer he would do so “for the purposes of expediting this conversation.” In recent months, BuzzFeed’s David Mack, freelancer Seth Harp, and Empire’s James Dyer have all reported harassment by CBP upon entering the US.
- An American journalist working with National Geographic was shot in the leg during an interview with a purported drug dealer in Juárez, Mexico, the AP reports; the journalist, who has not been named, and three colleagues were reportedly caught in an ambush that ended in a shootout. The journalist was discharged from hospital and has since returned to the US with their colleagues. Two people died in the attack.
- In the UK, Prince Harry joined a lawsuit alleging that the Daily Mirror and titles owned by Rupert Murdoch hacked the phones of famous people, then systematically hid the evidence. The claims in the suit span the period from 1994 to 2011, the year widespread allegations of hacking at British newspapers became public. Harry’s participation escalates his “all-out war with the British newspaper industry,” The Guardian reports.
- The BBC’s Carl Miller tracked a slew of edits to Wikipedia pages on topics—including Taiwan and the protests in Hong Kong—that China’s government considers sensitive. “It’s absolutely conceivable that people from the diaspora, patriotic Chinese, are editing these Wikipedia entries,” one expert said. “But to say that is to ignore the larger structural coordinated strategy the government has to manipulate these platforms.”
- On Saturday, amid sustained anti-government unrest in Baghdad, unidentified gunmen attacked the offices of three TV news stations: Al-Arabiya, Dajla, and NRT. Majed Hamid, a reporter at Al-Arabiya, which is Saudi-owned, told the AP that the assailants stormed the station’s building, beat up staff and smashed equipment, then fled.
- And a jury in Iowa ruled in favor of the Quad-City Times, a local newspaper, in a lawsuit brought by Craig Malin, who claimed the paper’s reporting wrongly forced him out of his job as a city administrator. A judge previously rejected Malin’s libel claim; instead, Malin sued on the unusual grounds of interference with his employment contract.